Wolfpack tries to avoid Pirate ambush

No. 13 NC State is looking for a smooth start, while ECU is primed to play spoiler at home

Quarterback Devin Leary and the Wolfpack have high hopes this season, but first NC State will need to get past an East Carolina team trending in the right direction. (Karl B. DeBlaker / AP Photo)

RALEIGH — When East Carolina and 13th-ranked NC State meet Saturday, it will be the 32nd time the two programs have played but just the fifth time it’s happened in Greenville.

For the Wolfpack, who hold an 18-13 edge in the series, it’s a chance to ease the nerves of a fanbase that often expects the worst, especially when expectations are highest. It’s also an opportunity to exorcise the program’s past demons at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.

“It’s a stadium that NC State has not played well in,” NC State coach Dave Doeren said. “As a program, we’re 1-4 in Greenville. My last time there, we had 13 penalties and lost in a one-possession game. So I know this is a tough place; trust me our team knows that as well. There’s been a lot of conversation about who we’re playing and where we’re playing.”

The last time the teams met, the Wolfpack handed the Pirates a 34-6 beatdown in 2019 at Carter-Finley Stadium in coach Mike Houston’s first season at East Carolina.

“We were noncompetitive in that game,” Houston said. “It was embarrassing, honestly. The program is… there’s no comparison at all. That being said, their program has made drastic improvements also. I think they won three or four games that year.

“Coming in, this is the highest preseason ranked NC State team in school history. So you have arguably one of the best teams that NC State has ever fielded coming into Dowdy-Ficklen on Sept. 3. We’re going to find out a lot about ourselves, but it’s night and day from what that game in 2019 was.”

The Pirates will also have home-field advantage, and the last time NC State visited Greenville it left with a 33-30 loss in 2016.

Houston has also improved ECU’s depth since the teams last met. The Pirates have a lineup full of veteran players — 16 starters return for the 2022 season — led by Holton Ahlers, the hometown senior quarterback who decided to return for one final year in Greenville.

Ahlers, who was named to the 2022 Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Watch List, threw for 3,126 yards and 18 touchdowns last season while rushing for 204 yards and six touchdowns. He ranks second all time at ECU in completions, passing yards and total yards, and he has a good chance of standing alone at the top of those lists at the end of the season.

But Ahlers isn’t a one-man show. Sophomore running back Keaton Mitchell ran for more than 1,000 yards with nine touchdowns last season with the Pirates.

“Everybody recognizes his speed on game day and it’s pretty elite,” Houston said of Mitchell. “But the thing people don’t see is that he has such a great feel for his own run game. He’s done a great job with his body over the offseason putting on some muscle and allowing himself to be a lot more sturdy this year than he was last year. He’s a very driven player also. I’m just excited to see what’s next for him.”

On the Wolfpack side, junior quarterback Devin Leary is poised to take the college football world by storm after last year’s breakout season in which he threw for 3,433 yards and 35 touchdowns with just five interceptions, becoming the first quarterback in ACC history to hit the 35-5 mark.

The expectations are sky-high for Leary, the 2022 ACC Preseason Player of the Year, but NC State’s defense is perhaps even more acclaimed.

The trio of Payton Wilson, Isaiah Moore and Drake Thomas gives NC State one of the best linebacker corps in the nation. Add in an experienced defensive line along with a poised and competent backfield and there’s no easy way through the Wolfpack.

But ECU’s defense is a strength as well.

“Best thing they do on defense is get the ball back,” Doeren said. “Last year, they got 21 takeaways on defense.”

It’s a matchup of two similar teams, both looking to take another step up the ladder.

For the Pirates, it’s a chance to prove that what Houston has been building the past few seasons is real and ready. The Wolfpack will try and overcome the burden of expectations and prove they can live up to the hype.

“What you have here in the opener is two much improved programs, two much improved teams, and it’s going to be a good ballgame,” Houston said.